Time and Priorities

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front #12

Many entrepreneurs work 24-7 to get their ventures off the ground, forgoing sleep, exercise, a balanced diet, and a social life.

This is one aspect of the entrepreneurial life that we don’t want our high school students to emulate.

But bringing a new venture to fruition is time-consuming—even if you don’t let it consume your entire life—and there is never enough time in a high school class, after-school program, or camp to do all of the product development, customer discovery, and sales initiatives we want to do—not to mention preparing for pitch competitions!

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As teachers, coaches and mentors, we have to prioritize how we spend our time, and we have to help students learn to prioritize their time (around classes, sports, school activities, family and jobs) as well.

So what is most important?

Here are my Top Five priorities, in order.

#1 Building students’ problem-solving skills is first and foremost.

That means engaging students in design challenges, guiding them with questions (not answers), getting them to the stage where they develop and test MVPs, and helping them internalize the role of entrepreneur. Problem-solving skills build self-confidence, and they are transferable to every aspect of a young person’s life. This must be our key focus in any setting where we foster teen entrepreneurship.

#2 Building students’ teamwork skills is a close second.

Most teenagers have a steep learning curve when it comes to collaborative work. Ambitious kids are determined to do everything themselves, and their less ambitious classmates are happy to let them. If we hope to prepare kids for the 21st-century workforce (and many colleges), we need to train them in how to communicate, delegate and hold each other accountable, without constant adult supervision and intervention.

#3 Getting students to interview customers.

This seems very specific after my first two, but customer discovery is so vital that it warranted two blog posts in this series. Teenagers today find it even more challenging to “talk to strangers” than their predecessors did, thanks to their over-reliance on social media and texting to communicate with each other. The only way to build true empathy with other people is to talk to them, listen to them, and find out how they see their own pains, gains, and jobs. We need our students to do this important work. (And yes, it can be done virtually with Zoom, Google meets or other video conferencing software.)

#4 Creating a real product or service.

It’s much easier to dream up ideas than it is to execute them, but our students learn a lot more (and struggle a lot more) when we expect them to get their ideas off the drawing board. At the very least, they need to develop minimum viable products (MVPs), so they think through the skills and materials required — and the logistics and costs — of creating their innovative solutions. This is challenging, but challenge is where we learn best.

#5 Getting their ideas out there.

Building on #4, we need to make sure that our young entrepreneurs get their MVPs in front of actual customers — and find out what they think. Sharing your ideas means making yourself vulnerable and facing the possibility that other people won’t like your idea. It means facing possible failure and learning from it, and that is one of the most critical lessons of all.

You’ll notice that a lot of steps in the entrepreneurial experience, like writing a business plan, participating in a pitch competition and making money, didn’t make the list. It’s not that those steps aren’t important, but in my view, they are icing on the cake.

The fundamental experience we must create for our students is this: Think creatively, work together, talk to your customers, design a solution, and launch your trial balloon. If we can do that, we’ve done a lot.

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